I began thinking about Steve Elson and Cathal “Irish” Flynn almost from the time I saw the planes explode through the World Trade Center towers. Both Elson and Flynn are retired Navy SEALs, and I knew them while we were on active duty.
I first met Flynn when he relieved me after I’d served a seven-month tour in Vietnam as officer in charge of three SEAL platoons. Some three months later he was on his way to the Philippines and then the Strand as commanding officer of Underwater Demolition Team Twelve, his abbreviated combat time in the Rung Sat Special Zone finished, his ticket punched. Flynn was a tall, almost gaunt man with a scholarly air: the sort of fellow with whom you could discuss realpolitik or monetary theory.
Elson had served a full combat tour in the Rung Sat as a SEAL corpsman and returned to work for me when I was executive officer of SEAL Team Two in Little Creek, Virginia. You wouldn’t discuss realpolitik with Elson, but you sure as hell would rather have him than Flynn walk point on a hairy mission.
Despite his relative lack of combat experience, Flynn parlayed — in my opinion — his empire-building skills, adroitness as a staff officer, and ability to cultivate contacts among senior officers into a series of promotions that ended with flag rank. He retired as the head of the Naval Intelligence Service and became head of security at the Federal Aviation Administration in 1993 — in part, I suspected, because of his carefully cultivated friendship with another former SEAL, Senator Bob Kerrey.
to list specific examples of employee abuse he claimed supported his opinion.
Elson also ended up at the FAA but on the other end of the food chain: he was a security agent toiling in the trenches at Houston’s international airport during the latter years of Flynn’s tenure as head of security. I wouldn’t have known of this connection if it hadn’t been for an e-mail that crossed my computer screen about a year ago. The message had been shotgunned bye-mail to several retired SEALs. In it, Steve Elson took Flynn to the woodshed, as they say.
“Two weeks ago,” the message began, “Mr. Cathal Flynn retired as head of FAA ‘security’ to his Coronado home with a big, fat retirement check.” Elson went on to deliver such licks as “Flynn joined the FAA cult and proved anathema to security...Essentially, there is no security in civil aviation today. There is deterrence based on the false appearance of security...Flynn and his staff punish agents for doing what they took an oath to do.”
Elson cited an FAA “vulnerability assessment report” at a major airport in late 1998 to show how far security had plummeted, and he quoted from that report: “The assessment team managed to break through different security screenings repeatedly in many different areas. Team members were caught only 4 times during 450 attempts to penetrate different security areas. They managed to get by passenger X-ray screening repeatedly. . .having on them a gun sealed under their belt-buckle...an automatic MAC machine gun under their jackets on their backs.”
According to Elson, not long after the report was filed Flynn painted a wildly inaccurate portrait of airport security in testimony before a Senate committee; “Flynn reported a 96% success rate in preventing unauthorized access to restricted areas.... I believe it fair to say Flynn lied [to Congress]. Flynn.. .looked the other way [when managers abused employees]. FAA security personnel no longer take job initiative because they are afraid of repercussions.” Elson went on
Elson also told the SEALs why he wrote the e-mail. “Because Flynn has not only disgraced himself, he has disgraced our community.... FAA [security agents| absolutely hate his guts for the damage he has done and the destruction of morale and work incentive. I can tell you many agents don’t have a very high opinion of SEAL Teams because of Flynn, a ’SEAL Admiral.’ When asked if Flynn was a SEAL, I just say, ’Naw, he was just an admin guy.’ Flynn’s performance makes this an easily acceptable statement.”
Whew, I thought. I hope Elson can back this up because — despite the obvious hyperbole — he was making very serious allegations. I sent my own e-mail, pointed this out, and asked what Flynn had done to him personally. Elson, in my experience, had never been one to engage in character assassination or otherwise stir up shit in a community that had several such practitioners.
Elson was characteristically forthright in his reply. “I can back up what I said with tons of stuff. The Government Accounting Office asked me to give them a three-hour brief. Ended up ten hours over two days. I have hand-delivered over 600 pages of documentation to Congress on the crap that goes on in FAA.
“I’ve written hundreds of papers that I send up to D.C. In most, I challenged/dared anyone I had slandered to sue me. So far, no takers. Perhaps Flynn will. I hope so. That would give me the perfect opportunity to get more documentation into the media."
Well, I thought, if you’ve got the goods on Irish Flynn, why hasn’t Congress or his boss, the secretary of transportation, done something about your complaints? Why has Irish returned to Coronado with a “fat FAA retirement check”? (Elson would later tell me he believed Congress was as bad as Flynn for not doing something about the failings of security.)
Over the next several weeks I exchanged e-mails with Elson to learn if he were an embittered Don Quixote or if what he said about Flynn and security had some basis. We were all to learn too well how that security would fail, although there are those such as Flynn who maintain nothing could have been done to prevent suicidal terrorists, who were also pilots, from hijacking those planes with knives and box cutters. That reality, they say, was simply unimaginable.
As for Flynn, Elson maintained in his e-mails and our phone conversations that “The most important issue is not Flynn: it’s the terrible state of civil aviation security. It’s just a matter of time before we have another catastrophic terrorist attack like Pan Am 103.” I pressed Elson on why he raged so against Flynn. “When Flynn took over FAA security,” Elson said,“I stayed away from him because I didn’t want to appear as if I were taking advantage of our SEAL ties. I’d known the guy when we served together on the staff at the Special Operations Command in Tampa and I thought highly of him. He once helped me out of a tight spot that could have cost me my career. When other FAA agents asked me what he was like, I told them he was a little different but that he’d do the job.